Get­ting festive with flow­ers

A dif­fer­ent take on dec­o­rat­ing for the hol­i­days, from the former florist in chief at the White House

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Jura Koncius

Dur­ing the six hol­i­day sea­sons florist Laura Dowl­ing de­voted to stag­ing mag­i­cal White House dis­plays, it never looked a lot like Christ­mas in her own home. There just wasn’t time. Her Old Town Alexan­dria, Va., house would usu­ally get only a sim­ple wreath on the front door.

Dowl­ing, who served as the White House chief flo­ral de­signer from 2009 to 2015, was in charge of mon­u­men­tal hol­i­day in­stal­la­tions that were viewed by more than 100,000 vis­i­tors an­nu­ally. The dis­plays might in­clude up­ward of 55 Christ­mas trees and thousands of or­na­ments, put up by hun­dreds of vol­un­teers. Ev­ery­thing had to look fresh for about five weeks. “Noth­ing pre­pared me for what it was like, with all the lo­gis­tics, de­tails and de­mands,” Dowl­ing says. “Each year, by the time we had fin­ished our dec­o­rat­ing process, I felt like I’d pretty much had enough of Christ­mas.”

Dowl­ing had opened her own flower de­sign stu­dio spe­cial­iz­ing in French-style bou­quets in 2002, af­ter a ca­reer in govern­ment and pub­lic pol­icy. She left the White House job in 2015, set­ting off a flurry of spec­u­la­tion. “I was brought in to make change, and I did,” Dowl­ing says. “It was time to start think­ing about what I would do next.” What that has been is lec­tur­ing, teach­ing classes and writ­ing a book, “Flo­ral Diplo­macy at the White House,” which has just been pub­lished.

And now Christ­mas is back at full vol­ume at her place. She has ar­ranged flow­ers and greens in al­most ev­ery room of the an­tiques-filled circa-1800 house she shares with hus­band Bob Wein­hagen, se­nior leg­isla­tive coun­sel for the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Dowl­ing’s loose, gar­den style of de­sign­ing has al­ways been to use lots of nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als in un­ex­pected ways. She can take a bag of lemons from Trader Joe’s and a few mag­no­lia leaves and quickly trans­form them into a gor­geous ar­range­ment.

Wreaths are an im­por­tant part of her hol­i­day look; she’s had time this year to put to­gether a num­ber as gifts for friends. As for her own front door, it’s a chang­ing panorama through­out the season. “This year, I started out with a potato-and-crab-ap­ple wreath in late Novem­ber, then made a lime-and-berry ver­sion, and am clos­ing out the hol­i­day season with a festive large-scale wreath made from gilded fin­ger­ling pota­toes, crab ap­ples, berries and var­ie­gated holly,” Dowl­ing says.

Dowl­ing showed us DIY ideas for five ar­eas of the house that you can still dress up in time for Christ­mas.

The en­trance hall

“I like the idea of putting a dra­matic dis­play of flow­ers, plants or green­ery in the en­trance as a way to set a festive am­biance,” Dowl­ing says. “Flow­ers are the eas­i­est and quick­est way to cre­ate a hol­i­day or sea­sonal mood; they add color and scent to make guests feel wel­comed and lift the spir­its.”

This year’s en­try bou­quet is an an­tique etched-glass vase with a mix of sea­sonal flow­ers and win­ter green­ery. “Boughs of fra­grant cedar, pine, eu­ca­lyp­tus, nan­d­ina and trail­ing ivy pro­vide a tex­tu­ral back­drop for the col­or­ful Christ­mas blooms,” Dowl­ing says. The flow­ers in­clude red amaryl­lis, var­ie­gated spi­der amaryl­lis, bur­gundy and red roses, red lilies and glo­riosa lilies. The bou­quet is re­flected in the large oval mir­ror and picks up the yel­low ocher and red tones in the vin­tage French toile slip­cov­ers in the par­lor.

The front door

Putting a wreath on your door sets a festive tone, Dowl­ing says. Even if you don’t have the time or space for a tree, you can still do this one thing. The wreath form is not only el­e­gant and time­less — it also con­veys spe­cial hol­i­day mean­ing. The shape rep­re­sents eter­nity and serves as a re­minder of the un­end­ing cir­cle of life, she says. Wreaths of all sizes and ma­te­ri­als can also be dis­played over man­tels, in win­dows and even on backs of chairs. This year, she in­cluded a fresh lime wreath propped up on her hearth. “The limes and crab ap­ples add a pop of Christ­mas color,” Dowl­ing says.

The man­tel

Her man­tel fea­tures a mag­no­lia-leaf-and-pa­per gar­land in­spired by the hand-carved Greek key pat­terns. Dowl­ing cut 14 pan­els (each 12 inches by 8 inches) from brown pa­per gro­cery bags and sta­pled sev­eral to­gether for ex­tra thick­ness. To cre­ate a strong graphic pre­sen­ta­tion, she A kiss­ing ball made of lemons hangs from a front win­dow of Dowl­ing’s Old Town Alexan­dria home in Vir­ginia. al­ter­nated the de­sign of scal­loped mag­no­lia leaves with a checker­board mo­tif made from folded green as­pidis­tra leaves and gold pa­per, us­ing a hot-glue gun to at­tach the leaves and pa­per and adding a moss bor­der. The pan­els were sta­pled to red satin rib­bon to cre­ate a gar­land.


The kiss­ing ball is a tra­di­tion that started in Eng­land dur­ing the Mid­dle Ages, Dowl­ing says. Small orbs of in­ter­lock­ing green­ery were hung over the doors as a sign of wel­come and good­will. Later, in the Vic­to­rian era, kiss­ing balls were dec­o­rated with herbs and small flow­ers.

“I think kiss­ing balls look great as a win­dow dec­o­ra­tion. The round form made of fruit and green­ery, tied with rib­bons or nat­u­ral greens, catches the light in the win­dow,” she says. She made hers by tak­ing a flo­ral foam ball cov­ered in net­ting (a four- or six-inch ball is per­fect), soak­ing it in water, and cov­er­ing it in white pine and cedar. She stuck lemons into the ball with wood picks, wired in crab ap­ples and added some trail­ing ivy as a fi­nal touch.


Cre­at­ing beau­ti­ful flo­ral dis­plays for a din­ing room or cof­fee ta­ble is part of the fun of the hol­i­days. Con­sider us­ing a non­tra­di­tional color pal­ette that is more win­try than Christ­masy. For her friend Cindy Con­ner’s din­ing room ta­ble, Dowl­ing made three ar­range­ments. There’s a large one in the mid­dle, and the two smaller ones on ei­ther side are held in mir­rored cube vases filled with peach-hued amaryl­lis, ra­nun­cu­lus and roses mixed with cedar and pine. The peach tones com­ple­ment Con­ner’s up­hol­stered din­ing chairs and nap­kins. The mir­rored con­tain­ers co­or­di­nate with the silver charg­ers and re­flect can­dle­light as well as what Con­ner calls her “vin­tage Tar­get” glit­ter snowflakes that she lays at each place set­ting.

The front door and en­try hall of Laura Dowl­ing, former White House chief flo­ral de­signer, are decked out for the season. Pho­tos by John McDonnell, The Wash­ing­ton Post

The gar­land in Dowl­ing’s liv­ing room.

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